Women in Government - Women, Sex, and Politics

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Women in Government
Women, Sex, and Politics

Before we explore the choices women make when they govern, it is worth remembering that men have historically blocked women from the political process. It was only recently that women were allowed a voice in US politics—the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women equal voting rights, was ratified in 1920. In other parts of the world, women's suffrage was granted far later. Waiting until 2015, Saudi Arabia was the last nation to give women the right to vote.

This comparatively limited tenure in the political world has constrained our time frame to empirically examine how women govern. Moreover, women are often expected to assimilate to the traditionally masculine political cultures they join. These social pressures may obscure women's true political nature. Yet what we have learned in recent years about women in government is consistent with evolutionary theory.

There is a notorious trope that if you ever go to prison, the first thing you need to do is go up to the biggest, meanest-looking inmate and punch him in the face. In starting this fight, you establish a place in the prison hierarchy. This advice seems to show a keen understanding of primate psychology. In the brutal world of male hierarchies, men will fight for rank, and if you are pegged as weak, you risk being forced down to the very lowest rung on the ladder. In prison, as in the chimpanzee troop, this is assuredly not where you want to be.

In a similar vein, scholars have observed that women entering political leadership positions often display excessive hawkishness, which may help to establish themselves within the male primate hierarchy that politics has always been. US secretaries of state Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, and British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, and Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, among others, all gained reputations for a hawkish male style in dealing with other states. When we recall that women politicians may dress in a manner that makes them appear “broad-shouldered,” we can begin to appreciate the value of primal strength displays within the ranks of male primates. We can also see why female leaders may at times adopt strategies that seem more similar to men's.

But most other times, women across all levels of society are less hawkish. A large body of research shows that women citizens are less likely to support the use of military force.87 Perhaps not surprising, then, research has found that when the ratio of women in legislatures increases, nations are less likely to use military force to solve conflicts with other nations.88 In one study, researchers examined defense spending and conflict behavior of twenty-two nations over a thirty-year span (between 1970 and 2000) and made a number of interesting findings.89 First, as the number of women legislators increased, nations were less likely to engage in an extensive list of conflict behaviors with other nations, such as threats, sanctions, demands, or actual military engagements. The researchers also calculated Right-Left orientation of nations based on the percentage of government seats that parties held. As we might expect, Right-oriented nations spent more on defense overall. But as the percentage of women legislators increased, defense spending decreased. This decrease occurred at the same rate across nations that were Right-oriented, such as the United States, and those that were Left-oriented, such as Norway, and the results were quantifiable. For example, in 2000, every 1 percent increase in women legislators in the United States produced a $314 million reduction in defense spending (out of $311 billion in total military spending that year). Similarly, a 1 percent increase in women legislators in Norway saw a $3.34 million decrease (out of $3.3 billion that year).

The study also found that when women were in chief executive (or ministers of defense) positions, there was an increase in defense spending and conflict behavior with other nations, demonstrating the compulsory hawkishness noted above. However, when there were more women legislators, women chief executives were less likely to spend money on defense or engage in conflict behavior. Surrounded by men, which is often the case for women executives, women may be pressured to display their toughness. But when bolstered by the presence of other women, women may feel less obligated to play by male rules. These findings suggest that if women were freer to behave politically according to their evolved inclinations, the gap between the political behaviors of men and women would broaden.

Rwanda offers a case study of women in control of government. In 1994, Hutu tribesmen took to the streets to slaughter rival Tutsis with machetes, bashing them with clubs, seizing Tutsi land, and raping an estimated 250,000 women. Over a short one hundred days, more than 800,000 Rwandans lay dead, most of them hacked to pieces.90 In the end, Hutus more than tripled the death toll wrought by American atomic bombs in Japan during World War II, using cheap, Chinese-made machetes. One result of this blot on humanity was a population comprised of over 70 percent women. In the years following the genocide, women began filling the power vacuum left by their dead men, and by 2008 Rwanda became the first nation in history to have a female majority in parliament.91

The shift of power to women resulted in laws to limit male sexual control. Domestic violence became illegal, and harsh prison sentences were legislated for rape. Further, birth rates and maternal mortality dropped, doors were opened for women to own land and open bank accounts, daughters were allowed to inherit property, and the percentage of women in the labor force surged. In 2009, the women-led government mandated basic education for all Rwandan children.92 In 2016, the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report ranked Rwanda fifth in the world on gender equality (again, the United States ranks forty-fifth).93

Before male competition destroyed 20 percent of Rwandan males, it oppressed Rwandan women. In the years leading up to the massacre, women lived under patriarchal control. Women's property ownership was practically unheard of, literacy among women was low, and maternal mortality was high. Evolutionary science suggests there is an important lesson to learn here—namely that much of the suffering that humans force on one another, whether oppression or genocide, can be attributed ultimately to male mate competition.

But a population of men need not be decimated to improve conditions for women. Scandinavian countries, which do exceptionally well at gender equality—Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden show the greatest gender equality on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report—use quotas for women. Norwegian law, for example, requires that all public companies listed on the Norwegian stock exchange must appoint boards that include at least 40 percent women. The same goes for state-owned companies.94 These countries tend to score high on a large number of measures of societal health, such as life expectancy at birth, years of education, gross national income per capita, gross domestic product, crime, literacy, healthcare, rate of university enrollment, years of education, and political stability.95

A clear conclusion of the scientific literature is that when women are allowed greater political and economic power, which is inseparable from the power to control their own reproduction, quality of life measurably improves for everyone. Affording that power requires placing thoughtful limits on male reproductive drives, which too often result in violence and oppression. This empirical observation is in direct contrast to foundational cultural doctrines that portray women's sexual agency as the cause of the world's misfortunes, as the story of Eve, who dared taste forbidden fruit. Once we see that those stories are based on male mate competition, a path to more stable human societies comes into greater focus.